TOKYO -- Yuka Saso's victory at the U.S. Women's Open Championship kept the title in Asia's hands for the fifth straight year.
The Filipino-Japanese player came close to giving up the crown to Lexi Thompson, who was poised to become the first American in five years to win the U.S. Open.
But the worm turned on the back nine when Thompson carded a heartbreaking bogey on the 18th hole, giving Saso the opening to putt in a 10-foot birdie for the win.
Over the past decade, eight Asians have won the U.S. Women's Open, with South Korea producing six winners. The East Asian country's dynasty traces back to 1998, when Pak Se-ri became the youngest winner at the time at age 20, triggering a golf boom in the region.
Shin Ji-yai and Ahn Sun-ju are considered "Pak Se-ri's kids" for their performances in the Ladies Professional Golf Association of Japan Tour.
Shin in particular led the U.S. LPGA in terms of tour money won in 2009. The next year, she briefly became the world's top-ranked women's golfer. Shin later left the LPGA to play in Japan and be closer to her family.
Japanese players have been knocking on the door as well. Hinako Shibuno won the Women's British Open in 2019, becoming the first Japanese woman to win a major tournament since 1977, when Hisako Higuchi became the first Asian-born player to win the LPGA Championship in the U.S. In 2010, Ai Miyazato became the first Japanese woman to rise to the top of the world's ranking, taking over the title from Shin.
Saso's win in the U.S. Open shows that the third time is the charm for players active in the LPGA of Japan Tour. Both Mamiko Higa and Shibuno led in the preliminary rounds in the 2019 and 2020 editions, respectively, before losing in the final round.
For 19-year-old Saso and others born around the year 2000, either they or their parents idolized "Ai-chan" when she competed in the U.S.-based LPGA tour. It could be said that Miyazato, with her petite 154-cm frame, inspired a long line of golf prodigies.
At 21, Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand completely dominated the ANA Inspiration, a major tournament in the LPGA tour. During the four-day stretch in April, she averaged 323 yards per drive. Tavatanakit is the second Thai winner of a major women's tourney since Ariya Jutanugarn won the British Open in 2016 and the U.S. Open in 2018.
Just like young Japanese players look up to Miyazato, Tavatanakit was inspired by the dominance displayed by the Jutanugarn sisters, Ariya and Moriya. Tavatanakit honed her skills on golf courses recently built in Thailand.
"Unlike Japan, which has a lot of old courses, [Thailand] has built modern courses that match specifications with U.S. tours," said Hiroyuki Fujita, a winning Japanese professional golfer.
Saso, born in 2001 to a Filipina mother and a Japanese father, practiced golf in her birthplace of the Philippines, another country blessed with a superior environment for training in the sport.
Although Saso moved briefly to Japan at four, five years later she told her parents her aspiration of becoming the world's best golfer, prompting her move back to the Philippines with her father.
"We did it to make a child's dream come true," said her father, Masakazu Saso.
The younger Saso trained closely and furiously with her father until she attained the coveted U.S. Open championship in seemingly record time.
When golf returned to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro after a 112-year hiatus, competitors from Asia and Oceania dominated the women's competition. South Korea's Park In-bee won the gold medal, with Lydia Ko of New Zealand and China's Feng Shanshan taking silver and bronze, respectively. Harukyo Nomura of Japan ranked just behind the medalists in fourth place.
Fans will be watching to see whether Saso can break South Korea's near-monopoly on the winner's podium to take home the Philippines' first Olympic gold medal, or whether Nasa Hataoka of Japan -- who missed out on her first major tournament win Sunday after losing to Saso in a playoff -- will avenge that defeat in Tokyo.
Either way, Asia's grip on women's golf looks likely to remain unbroken.